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  The Red Baron
Richthofen: The Red Fighter Pilot
Chapter 9 - I Get the Ordre Pour le Merite

I HAD brought down my sixteenth victim, and I had come to the head of the list of all the flying chasers. I had obtained the aim which I had set myself. In the previous year my friend Lynker, with whom I was training, had asked me: "What is your object? What will you obtain by flying?" I replied, jokingly, "I would like to be the first of the chasers. That must be very fine." That I should succeed in this I did not believe myself. Other people also did not expect my success. Boelcke is supposed to have said, not to me personally—I have only heard the report—when asked: "Which of the fellows is likely to become a good chaser?"—"That is the man!" pointing his finger in my direction.

Boelcke and Immelman were given the Ordre pour le Merite when they had brought down their eighth aeroplane. I had downed twice that number. The question was, what would happen to me? I was very curious. It was rumored that I was to be given command of a chasing squadron.

One fine day a telegram arrived, which stated: "Lieutenant von Richthofen is appointed Commander of the Eleventh Chasing Squadron."

I must say I was annoyed. I had learnt to work so well with my comrades of Boelcke's Squadron and now I had to begin all over again working hand in hand with different people. It was a beastly nuisance. Besides I should have preferred the Ordre pour le Merite.

Two days later, when we were sitting sociably together, we men of Boelcke's Squadron, celebrating my departure, a telegram from Headquarters arrived. It stated that His Majesty had graciously condescended to give me the Ordre pour le Merite. Of course my joy was tremendous.

I had never imagined that it would be so delightful to command a chasing squadron. Even in my dreams I had not imagined that there would ever be a Richthofen's squadron of aeroplanes.

Le Petit Rouge

It occurred to me to have my packing case painted all over in staring red. The result was that everyone got to know my red bird. My opponents also seemed to have heard of the color transformation.

During a fight on quite a different section of the Front I had the good fortune to shoot into a Vickers' two-seater which peacefully photographed the German artillery position. My friend, the photographer, had not the time to defend himself. He had to make haste to get down upon firm ground for his machine began to give suspicious indications of fire. When we airmen notice that phenomenon in an enemy plane, we say: "He stinks!" As it turned out it was really so. When the machine was coming to earth it burst into flames.

I felt some human pity for my opponent and had resolved not to cause him to fall down but merely to compel him to land. I did so particularly because I had the impression that my opponent was wounded for he did not fire a single shot.

When I had got down to an altitude of about fifteen hundred feet engine trouble compelled me to land without making any curves. The result was very comical. My enemy with his burning machine landed smoothly while I, his victor, came down next to him in the barbed wire of our trenches and my machine overturned.

The two Englishmen who were not a little surprised at my collapse, greeted me like sportsmen. As mentioned before, they had not fired a shot and they could not understand why I had landed so clumsily. They were the first two Englishmen whom I had brought down alive. Consequently, it gave me particular pleasure to talk to them. I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, "Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it 'Le Petit Rouge'."

English and French Flying. (February, 1917)

I WAS trying to compete with Boelcke's squadron. Every evening we compared our bags. However, Boelcke's pupils are smart rascals. I cannot get ahead of them. The utmost one can do is to draw level with them. The Boelcke section has an advantage over my squadron of one hundred aeroplanes downed. I must not allow them to retain it. Everything depends on whether we have for opponents those French tricksters or those daring rascals, the English. I prefer the English. Frequently their daring can only be described as stupidity. In their eyes it may be pluck and daring.

The great thing in air fighting is that the decisive factor does not lie in trick flying but solely in the personal ability and energy of the aviator. A flying man may be able to loop and do all the stunts imaginable and yet he may not succeed in shooting down a single enemy. In my opinion the aggressive spirit is everything and that spirit is very strong in us Germans. Hence we shall always retain the domination of the air.

The French have a different character. They like to put traps and to attack their opponents unawares. That cannot easily be done in the air. Only a beginner can be caught and one cannot set traps because an aeroplane cannot hide itself. The invisible aeroplane has not yet been discovered. Sometimes, however, the Gaelic blood asserts itself. The Frenchmen will then attack. But the French attacking spirit is like bottled lemonade. It lacks tenacity.

The Englishmen, on the other hand, one notices that they are of Germanic blood. Sportsmen easily take to flying, and Englishmen see in flying nothing but a sport. They take a perfect delight in looping the loop, flying on their back, and indulging in other stunts for the benefit of our soldiers in the trenches. All these tricks may impress people who attend a Sports Meeting, but the public at the battle-front is not as appreciative of these things. It demands higher qualifications than trick flying. Therefore, the blood of English pilots will have to flow in streams.

I Am Shot Down. (Middle of March, 1917)

I HAVE had an experience which might perhaps be described as being shot down. At the same time, I call shot down only when one falls down. To-day I got into trouble but I escaped with a whole skin.

I was flying with the squadron and noticed an opponent who also was flying in a squadron. It happened above the German artillery position in the neighborhood of Lens. I had to fly quite a distance to get there. It tickles one's nerves to fly towards the enemy, especially when one can see him from a long distance and when several minutes must elapse before one can start fighting. I imagine that at such a moment my face turns a little pale, but unfortunately I have never had a mirror with me. I like that feeling for it is a wonderful nerve stimulant. One observes the enemy from afar. One has recognized that his squadron is really an enemy formation. One counts the number of the hostile machines and considers whether the conditions are favorable or unfavorable. A factor of enormous importance is whether the wind forces me away from or towards our Front. For instance, I once shot down an Englishman. I fired the fatal shot above the English position. However, the wind was so strong that his machine came down close to the German captive balloons.

We Germans had five machines. Our opponents were three times as numerous. The English flew about like midges. It is not easy to disperse a swarm of machines which fly together in good order. It is impossible for a single machine to do it. It is extremely difficult for several aeroplanes, particularly if the difference in number is as great as it was in this case. However, one feels such a superiority over the enemy that one does not doubt of success for a moment.

The aggressive spirit, the offensive, is the chief thing everywhere in war, and the air is no exception. However, the enemy had the same idea. I noticed that at once. As soon as they observed us they turned round and attacked us. Now we five had to look sharp. If one of them should fall there might be a lot of trouble for all of us. We went closer together and allowed the foreign gentlemen to approach us.

I watched whether one of the fellows would hurriedly take leave of his colleagues. There! One of them is stupid enough to depart alone. I can reach him and I say to myself, "That man is lost." Shouting aloud, I am after him. I have come up to him or at least am getting very near him. He starts shooting prematurely, which shows that he is nervous. So I say to myself, "Go on shooting. You won't hit me." He shot with a kind of ammunition which ignites. So I could see his shots passing me. I felt as if I were sitting in front of a gigantic watering pot. The sensation was not pleasant. Still, the English usually shoot with their beastly stuff, and so we must try and get accustomed to it. One can get accustomed to anything. At the moment I think I laughed aloud. But soon I got a lesson. When I had approached the Englishman quite closely, when I had come to a distance of about three hundred feet, I got ready for firing, aimed and gave a few trial shots. The machine guns were in order. The decision would be there before long. In my mind's eye I saw my enemy dropping.

My former excitement was gone. In such a position one thinks quite calmly and collectedly and weighs the probabilities of hitting and of being hit. Altogether the fight itself is the least exciting part of the business as a rule. He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down. Besides calmness is, after all, a matter of habit. At any rate in this case I did not make a mistake. I approached my man up to fifty yards. Then I fired some well aimed shots and thought that I was bound to be successful. That was my idea. But suddenly I heard a tremendous bang, when I had scarcely fired ten cartridges. Presently again something hit my machine. It became clear to me that I had been hit or rather my machine. At the same time I noticed a fearful benzine stench and I observed that the motor was running slack. The Englishman noticed it, too, for he started shooting with redoubled energy while I had to stop it.

I went right down. Instinctively I switched off the engine and indeed it was high time to do this. When a pilot's benzine tank has been perforated, and when the infernal liquid is squirting around his legs, the danger of fire is very great. In front is an explosion engine of more than 150 h. p. which is red hot. If a single drop of benzine should fall on it the whole machine would be in flames.

I left in the air a thin white cloud. I knew its meaning from my enemies. Its appearance is the first sign of a coming explosion. I was at an altitude of nine thousand feet and had to travel a long distance to get down. By the kindness of Providence my engine stopped running. I have no idea with what rapidity I went downward. At any rate the speed was so great that I could not put my head out of the machine without being pressed back by the rush of air.

Soon I lost sight of my enemy. I had only time to see what my four comrades were doing while I was dropping to the ground. They were still fighting. Their machine-guns and those of their opponents could be heard. Suddenly I notice a rocket. Is it a signal of the enemy? No, it cannot be. The light is too great for a rocket. Evidently a machine is on fire. What machine ? The burning machine looks exactly as if it were one of our own. No! Praise the Lord, it is one of the enemy's! Who can have shot him down? Immediately afterwards a second machine drops out and falls perpendicularly to the ground, turning, turning, turning exactly as I did, but suddenly it recovers its balance. It flies straight towards me. It also is an Albatros. No doubt it had the same experience as I had.

I had fallen to an altitude of perhaps one thousand feet and had to look out for a landing. Now such a sudden landing usually leads to breakages and as these are occasionally serious it was time to look out. I found a meadow. It was not very large but it just sufficed if I used due caution. Besides it was favorably situated on the high road near Henin-Lietard. There I meant to land.

Everything went as desired and my first thought was, "What has become of the other fellow?" He landed a few kilometers from the spot where I had come to the ground.

I had ample time to inspect the damage. My machine had been hit a number of times. The shot which caused me to give up the fight had gone through both benzine tanks. I had not a drop of benzine left and the engine itself had also been damaged by shots. It was a pity for it had worked so well.

I let my legs dangle out of the machine and probably made a very silly face. In a moment I was surrounded by a large crowd of soldiers. Then came an officer. He was quite out of breath. He was terribly excited ! No doubt something fearful had happened to him. He rushed towards me, gasped for air and asked: "I hope that nothing has happened to you. I have followed the whole affair and am terribly excited! Good Lord, it looked awful!" I assured him that I felt quite well, jumped down from the side of my machine and introduced myself to him. Of course he did not understand a particle of my name. However, he invited me to go in his motor car to Henin- Lietard where he was quartered. He was an Engineer Officer.

We were sitting in the motor and were commencing our ride. My host was still extraordinarily excited. Suddenly he jumped up and asked: "Good Lord, but where is your chauffeur?" At first I did not quite understand what he "meant. Probably I looked puzzled. Then it dawned upon me that he thought that I was the observer of a two- seater and that he asked after the fate of my pilot. I pulled myself together and said in the dryest tones: "I always drive myself." Of course the word "drive" is absolutely taboo among the flying men.

An aviator does not drive, he flies. In the eyes of the kind gentleman I had obviously lost caste when he discovered that I "drove" my own aeroplane. The conversation began to slacken.

We arrived in his quarters. I was still dressed in my dirty and oily leather jacket and had round my neck a thick wrap. On our journey he had of course asked me a tremendous number of questions. Altogether he was far more excited than I was. When we got to his diggings he forced me to lie down on the sofa, or at least he tried to force me because, he argued, I was bound to be terribly done up through my fight. I assured him that this was not my first aerial battle but he did not, apparently, give me much credence. Probably I did not look very martial.

After we had been talking for some time he asked me of course the celebrated question: "Have you ever brought down a machine?" As I said before he had probably not understood my name. So I answered nonchalantly: "Oh, yes! I have done so now and then." He replied: "Indeed! Perhaps you have shot down two?" I answered: "No. Not two but twenty-four." He smiled, repeated his question and gave me to understand that, when he was speaking about shooting down an aeroplane, he meant not shooting at an aeroplane but shooting into an aeroplane in such a manner that it would fall to the ground and remain there. I immediately assured him that I entirely shared his conception of the meaning of the words "shooting down."

Now I had completely lost caste with him. He was convinced that I was a fearful liar. He left me sitting where I was and told me that a meal would be served in an hour. If I liked I could join in. I accepted his invitation and slept soundly for an hour. Then we went to the Officers' Club. Arrived at the club I was glad to find that I was wearing the Ordre pour le Merite.

Unfortunately I had no uniform jacket underneath my greasy leather coat but only a waistcoat. I apologized for being so badly dressed. Suddenly my good chief discovered on me the Ordre pour le Merite. He was speechless with surprise and assured me that he did not know my name. I gave him my name once more. Now it seemed to dawn upon him that he had heard my name before. He feasted me with oysters and champagne and I did gloriously until at last my orderly arrived and fetched me with my car. I learned from him that comrade Lubbert had once more justified his nickname. He was generally called "the bullet-catcher" for his machine suffered badly in every fight. Once it was hit sixty-four times. Yet he had not been wounded. This time he had received a glancing shot on the chest and he was by this time in hospital. I flew his machine to port. Unfortunately this excellent officer, who promised to become another Boelcke, died a few weeks later—a hero's death for the Fatherland.

In the evening I could assure my kind host of Henin-Lietard that I had increased my "bag" to twenty-five.


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